Friday, 29 November 2013

On vegetarians v.s. eating vegetables in Asia

In a few hours' time, I am going to be sleeping in a hammock, or maybe lazily reading Blood Bones and Butter (fabulous, do check out) while breathing the salty sea air and overdosing on vitamin D. #smugholidayface  I'm going on a little retreat and it's going to be amazing– the sun, the sand, the yoga... the ayurvedic vegetarian meals, yikes.

Thanks mum for worriedly asking if I should sneak some 'proper' food into my bag, but I'll do fine.

I don't have an issue with vegetables. I love vegetables– in fact, probably even more so than a vegetarian. I love my pork belly but I love the kale lying on the same plate just as much. I've always been brought up on the idea of a meal not being complete without vegetables (and rice, #asian). There never was any disguising of vegetables, no blended spinach chocolate smoothies or zucchini muffins. You just got used to seeing the colour green on the table. We were given vegetables, and surprise! the vegetables tasted good.

We could have a meal with just dishes of vegetables. There could be marrow, simmered with goji berries in a light pork stockaubergines, fried with sambal made with fermented shrimp paste; carrots, shredded and tossed in a sharp fish sauce-spiked dressing; bok choy, simply steamed and then drizzled with oyster sauce. I think you might have noticed something here. Nothing is vegetarian. (And that aubergines and carrots are not green, shush you get the point.)

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." It's a pretty famous quote in a New York Times article by Michael Pollan in response to all those unhealthy/ crazy diets out there. I smiled when I read that for the first time, because it's exactly the way I eat, rather unintentionally (though I would also like to add "with delight, with friends, and with an extra squirt of chilli", and I don't do too well on the "not too much" all the time).

The sort-of-recipe here is a classic example of that. It's one of my mum's favourite ways with vegetables. This will work with almost anything, and the most boring white cabbage fried this way has me and my sisters chopsticks-fighting. The vegetable here is nai bai, similar to baby bok choy but with a white stem and crinkly leaves, but use whatever greens you like; I dare you to find me a vegetable that won't taste good fried this way, with copious amounts of crushed garlic and dried shrimps, and in good ol' healthy lard of course.

serves 1(me) to 4 
500g nai bai, or choice of vegetable*
8 cloves garlic (yes.)
2 heaped tbsp dried shrimps
2 tbsp lard**
3- 4 tbsp of warm water
pinch of sea salt

1. Soak the dried shrimps in the warm water for 10 min or till soft. Drain and save the soaking liquid it's bloody amazing and forms the stock for later.
2. Trim the bottoms of the nai bai, wash and dry well.
3. Mum pounds the garlic with the dried shrimp and a big pinch of salt in a mortar and pestle. This helps to release their flavour better in a quick stir-fry. You can also just mince very very finely.
3. Heat wok till smoking hot, then add the lard. Once lard is hot, add the garlic-shrimp mixture and stir-fry till fragrant, it will only take a few seconds.
4. Add the nai bai and stir-fry on high heat for a minute, before adding the soaking liquid*.  Continue frying until just withered. Plate up and eat straight away.

*if using a hardier vegetable like cabbage, after adding the soaking liquid, cover and let cook on medium heat till tender. Sweet pumpkinish squashes work extremely well too. 
**from happy pigs please

This is how you eat vegetables in Asia, or at the very least in my home – with lard, and with pleasure.

.. fingers crossed for the next few days.

p.s. Before anybody shoots me, "in Asia" is specific to the Chinese/ migrant Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, aka er, in my home. Muslims of course do not use lard, and certain Indian households do not even use anything that used to move– I am in awe.

Related reads
For the love of lard

Other non-vegetarian vegetable dishes
Killer sambal grilled aubergines
Sayur lodeh, a veg curry but better
Mum's marrow stew
Simmered kabocha squash 
Soon kueh, steamed turnip (gluten-free) dumplings
Cashew asparagus

Friday, 15 November 2013

Bak Chor Mee, noodles dry-tossed in crack

Yes, THE most requested recipe ever from stranded Singaporeans who read my blog.

Chewy egg noodles, slippery with fragrant lard and fried shallot oil and coated with a crack sauce made  with sweet black vinegar, soy sauce and the mother of all chilli sauces, bak chor mee is one of those things that make me proud to be a Singaporean (comes just ahead of our award-winning airport on the list).  It's a dish which our migrant Teochew forefathers brought over, but they gave it their own South-east Asian twist with dried-shrimp chilli and all sorts of goodness, making it quite unique to Singapore. There are tons of similar dry-tossed noodles all over Asia, but I'm not entirely convinced any one could match up to bak chor mee– though I may be biased of course.

I can't pinpoint exactly what it is about a bowl of noodles that makes me go weak in the knees; it's a combination of everything that goes into it.

1. Noodles
The noodles have to be cooked just right so there's still a nice amount of bite. They have to be tossed with the oily sauce right after it's cooked, when it's still warm, so they don't clump and stick together. There are two kinds of 'egg' noodles you can use, the thin one mee kia or the thicker flat one mee pok, but both are noodles made with alkaline water so they are wonderfully chewy.
It is of course easy to get these fresh here in Singapore from the markets, but when I made this dish in London, I had to make my own alkaline noodles fresh. Thank you Charlene again for the pasta machine.

2. Sauce
This sauce is not difficult to make if you already have everything in your fridge/ larder. The ones that require a bit of work are the sambal, fried shallot oil and lard, but these are kitchen staples for me and I make an extra large batch every time. Do not skip out a single thing in this sauce.

The sambal 
When I was younger, and didn't fancy chilli that much (ha ha ha), my mum would order this dish for me and my sisters with the chilli swapped out for ketchup. That said, ketchup bak chor mee is actually quite good. But different. Slow-fried with shallots and fermented shrimp paste (some hawkers add dried shrimps to the usual sambal too), this chilli adds not just heat but a hit of umami to the sauce.

The lard
A lot of hawkers nowadays skip the lard to get a 'healthier choice' sticker plastered on the front of their stall. Pfft. The fragrant lard is what makes the sauce glide over the noodles. The fried shallot oil alone is still great, but do yourself and your grandmother proud and use the damn lard. Lard from a happy pig is one of the healthiest (and most delicious) fats you could eat. My friend Uyen swears it's why she still looks like a teenager. From a chefy point of view, the pork fat also ties together the ingredients for this dish– minced pork, pork liver and crackling.

The vinegar 
I would say the amount of vinegar you use is adjustable to your preference. I always ask for extra vinegar when I order from the hawker stalls. It has a wonderful musky sharpness to cut through all that richness.

3. The toppings
The only essentials (I feel) are minced pork and braised mushrooms.

Minced pork
Bak chor mee literally translates to minced pork noodles after all. The minced pork is simply blanched, but in a rich pork stock so there is no loss of porky flavour as you would get with just using hot water.

The braised shiitake mushrooms are da bomb and worth making extra. They add an extra juicy sweet savoury something to any plain rice/ noodle dish.

There is actually a very funny 'non-political' podcast about this. I always ask for "mai ter gua" (no liver) not because I don't like liver (I love it), but because you have to be absolutely sure the liver is fresh and cooked just right or it will smell disgusting and taste powdery. In the version I make, there is no liver simply because I'm lazy to go out and get some.

Everything else
You can get tons of variations of this. With prawns, fishballs, sliced fishcakes, etc. I had no fishballs in London and wasn't about to make them too.
feeds 2 
2 bundles of fresh flat egg noodles, mee pok
100g minced pork*
(opt) 70g thinly sliced fresh pork liver *
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp white pepper
1 cup 'Asian' pork stock*, seasoned with salt and white pepper, to taste

For the sauce
2 tbsp good, traditionally brewed soy sauce
2 tbsp Chinese black vinegar
2 tbsp sambal tumis
1 tbsp fried shallot oil
2 tsp lard*

To serve 
chopped spring onions
sliced braised mushrooms (make extra)
     6 dried shiitake mushrooms
     1 tbsp good soy sauce
     2 tbsp good oyster sauce
     1 tsp toasted sesame oil
     1 tsp unrefined sugar
(opt) slice of lettuce, for some greenery

*from happy pigs please

1. I like to do this step the day before so I have less to worry about. Mix the pork with the fish sauce and white pepper. Measure out enough water to cover the mushrooms, then add all the seasonings and mix well. Leave both in the fridge overnight to marinate.
2. The next day, slice the mushrooms into fat slithers. Bring the mushrooms to the boil in the soaking liquid and simmer gently until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the mushrooms are now plump with sexy juices.
3. Combine the ingredients for the sauce and divide into bowls.
4. Blanch the noodles in boiling water until cooked but still al dente. Do it portion by portion for best results. They should still retain a somewhat toothy, springy bite. Drain well by tossing hard in a sieve to shake off excess water, then turn the noodles out into the bowls. Dry toss in the sauce so that each strand is well-coated in deliciousness.
5. The pork stock should be at a rolling boil. Blanch the minced pork in the stock for a minute, or until cooked. Use a fine sieve to remove the pork, then add over the noodles. Repeat with the liver if using.
6. To finish, top the noodles with the braised mushrooms, crackling, and fried shallots. Ladle the hot pork broth into smaller bowls and finish with an added dash of white pepper and spring onions, then serve with the bowls of noodles.

It seems like a lot of work, especially if you are making everything from scratch, but everything is prepped in advance and the actual assembly takes minutes. It is also pretty amazing so it's worth it anyway. I think I've written enough already. I didn't intend to be so pedantic and long-winded but once I started I couldn't stop. Like you would with a bowl of bak chor mee.

This recipe is featured in The Plusixfive Cookbook, along with other kickass (not biased at all...) recipes for Singaporean favourites.